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No introduction but worth reading
on 11 February 2011
There is no introduction and few notes but at this Kindle price one cannot complain. What one does have is the text of an important book. Please note that the two other critical reviews here are for a quite different paperback version by another publisher.
There are three related principal themes in "Representative Government":
1. The application of the principles of utilitarianism to government.
2. To reconcile the competing claims of efficient government and the popular voice.
3. To combat the danger of the "tyranny of the majority".
Mill's version of utilitarianism stressed "the permanent interests of man as a progressive being". Hence Mill says that the first question to ask is whether a form of government develops the desirable moral and intellectual qualities of the citizens. Mill believed that "active" rather than "passive" people create human progress, and political institutions should foster active citizens, and this is best done by giving (almost) everyone the vote. This included women, which earned him a mixture of mirth and hostility from contemporaries. He also favoured local government, and welcomed citizen participation on juries.
Though Mill wanted citizens to have the vote he did not want them to play too important a role. He was opposed to direct democracy, and favoured representative government because it enabled him to reconcile bureaucratic expertise with the popular voice. As in "On Liberty" Mill insists on the importance of the elite, and he recommends a Committee of Grievances and a Congress of Opinions which should be responsible for neither legislation nor administration. It should act as a sort of check on government without trying to control it. Parliament must not select members of the Cabinet, and civil servants must be recruited via competitive exams.
In discussing the electoral system Mill reveals his concern with the dangers of a "tyranny of the majority" and advocated Hare system of STV which achieves the most accurate possible representation of public opinion according to its numerical strength. Mill justified the Hare system on the grounds of representing minorities, but it is clear that the minority he was primarily concerned with was the educated elite, and Mill believed the Hare system would give more representation to this elite than other electoral systems.
The elite would be bolstered by plural voting. Mill said that though everybody should have a voice it did not mean they should have an equal voice. Extra votes were to be allocated to people based on educational achievement, but Mill was writing before universal education so in the meantime bosses should have more votes than employees (because they had to think more in their duties) and foremen should have more votes than those under them. Mill acknowledged this was a somewhat hit-and-miss temporary expedient. Today he would no doubt give an extra votes for passing exams at 16, and then 18, and then at degree level.
In the novel "In the Wet" Nevil Shute was to give an alternative case for plural voting, with extra votes earned not only be education but also by military service, travel and a special extra one for exceptional public service. In practice plural voting was abolished in the UK in 1948.
Since Mill's time representative government has become the dominant form of government in the advanced world, but plural voting has been abolished everywhere and only the Israeli electoral system comes close to the mirror image of the electorate achieved by the full Hare system. Were Mill to return now I suspect he would be relieved that his worst fears over a "tyranny of the majority" have not come to pass but would be concerned that politicians are more concerned with popular policies than good policies.